Citizen Kane and Cinema’s Most Underrated Comedy Scene
You hear the title Citizen Kane and you think — “greatest film ever made,” “classic,” and all those things that have been laid upon this film’s reputation over the years. The film is a technical masterpiece, using form in such a way that — well, I’m sure you know by now. It’s been discussed tens of thousands of times. But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about something else this film does aside from all that. Specifically one particular scene that I feel is one of the funniest ever written.
Of course, this is only a hilarity that occurs in context, but even so — watching this scene makes me think that Orson Welles and the other writers had as much fun writing it as George Clooney and the rest of the cast had making the Ocean‘s movies.
The scene in question is one of the first in the film — right after the “News on the March” newsreel ends and the reporters are talking inside the projection room. This scene is — when viewed in full context — hilarious.
Not just regular hilarious. Actually, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they did that” hilarious. Let me show you:
The film begins with Kane’s death. “Rosebud,” the snow globe falling and all that. Then we get the newsreel and all that exposition about his life. Then — projection room. The context here you need is simple:
1) You need to know that the film was based on William Randolph Hearst.
2) You need to know the alleged story behind Rosebud.
The first is pretty simple. Pretty much anyone who has seen the film, has taken a film class or can read Wikipedia or IMDB trivia will know that the film was clearly based on Hearst. (Hearst’s reaction to the film pretty much backs up that fact.) The second is also well-known but may not be known to everyone.
The story goes that “Rosebud” is the name Hearst had for his mistress’s (Marion Davies’) clitoris. This has neither been proven true nor false, but for the sake of my point, let’s go with it.
Plus, wouldn’t you want that to be true? The fact that the line of one of the most famous in film history and is the entire basis of the film automatically makes what it might be in reference to hilarious. Not to mention — the imagery is incredible.
Now — imagine you’re William Randolph Hearst (a game we’ve all played at least thirty or forty times, I’m sure). You’re watching a movie that you’ve heard is based on your life. The credits play and the film begins. And what’s the first word spoken in the film?
Yeah, I bet he had it on his lips.
Jokes about the moustache aside, right there, I bet Hearst is furious. But the film doesn’t stop there. Oh no. Mr. Deeds hasn’t gone to town yet.
(Side note: Can anyone else not see the words “Oh no” and not immediately picture them being spoken by Jimmy Stewart?)
So we get the News on the March and all that, and then we cut to the projection room:
I’d also like to point out how badly I’m fighting to urge to talk about how technically great this entire sequence is, from lighting to cinematography on down.
What happens in this sequence (for those who can’t recall specifically what happens) is — the reporters, after watching the reel, decide that there’s nothing to differentiate it from the rest of the news on Kane. Everybody knows this stuff. So what they want to do is figure out the meaning behind Kane’s last words. (You see where this is heading.) And this is, when viewed in the context of those two points up there, absolutely hysterical. Just imagine being William Randolph Hearst having to watch this. Every turn of phrase is like another needle jabbing into your side.
Here’s the dialogue from the scene (I’m cutting out some of the odds and ends for time purposes. Also, the “reporter” bits are by several different people):
- Rawlston: “It’s a good short, Thompson, but what it needs is an angle. All we saw on that screen is that Charles Foster Kane is dead. I know that, I read the papers. You see, Thompson, it isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was — wait a minute — what were Kane’s last words? Do you remember, boys? What were the last words he said on earth? Maybe he told us all about himself on his deathbed.”
- Thompson: “Yeah, and maybe he didn’t. Maybe it was—“
- Rawlston: “All we saw on that screen was a big American. But how is he any different from Ford, or Hearst for that matter, or John Doe? I tell you, Thompson, a man’s dying words–“
- Reporter: “What were they?”
- Thompson: “You don’t read the paper.”
- Rawlston: “When Charles Foster Kane died, he said just one word –“
- Reporter: “Rosebud.”
- Rawlston: “Yes, Rosebud. Just that one word. But who is she?”
- Reporter: “What was it?”
- Rawlston: “Here’s a man that could have been president. Who was as loved and hated and as talked about as any man in our time. But when he comes to die, he’s got something on his mind called Rosebud. Now what does that mean?”
- Reporter: “A racehorse he bet on once.”
- Reporter: “Yeah, that didn’t come in!“
- Rawlston: “All right. But what was the race?”
- Reporter: “Ha ha — Rosebud.”
- Rawlston: “Thompson — hold this picture up a week. Two weeks if you have to. Find out about Rosebud! Get in touch with everybody that ever knew him — ohhh, who knew him well. That manager of his — uhh — Bernstein! His second wife! She’s still living.”
- Thompson: “Susan Alexander Kane?”
- Rawlston: “See ’em all! Get in touch with everybody that ever worked for him. Who ever loved him. Who ever — hated his guts. I don’t mean go through the city directory, of course.”
- Thompson: “I’ll get on it right away, Mr. Rawlston.”
- Rawlston: “Good. Rosebud. Dead or alive. It’ll probably turn out to be a very simple thing.”
See what I mean? That’s fucking hilarious. Here’s a link to the actual scene so you can watch it with full inflection on all the words:
The best part about it is, after that final line — “It’ll probably turn out to be something very simple” — they immediately cut to this:
And if that’s not enough, they pan up to this:
Floor show. Twice nightly.
There’s a reason this is considered the greatest film ever made.
(Edit: There’s a great scene where Thompson is in that records room, reading over Kane’s history (this is right after the scene where Kane says, “If I hadn’t been very rich I might have been a really great man,” with that deep focus shot of him walking all the way to the window and back). And he’s unable to find anything, and as he’s leaving, he turns to a giant painting and says, “You’re not Rosebud, are you?”, and the woman at the office goes, “WHAT?!” This will never get old.)